BY MARTIN DAKS, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR
TOTOWA RESIDENT MIKE SULLIVAN graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, is a former U.S. Army Ranger and holds a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. But most people probably know him from his days as a coach for NFL teams such as the New York Giants—during two Super Bowls—and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. COMMERCE spoke with Sullivan about what drives him and how he motivates players.
COMMERCE: It sounds like competition is part of your DNA. Is that what attracted you to football?
MIKE SULLIVAN: To a degree. I’ve always been drawn to challenges—that’s why I went to West Point, and to the U.S. Army, and to Ranger School. I measure myself against myself and against others. As a youngster and through high school, I enjoyed watching and playing different sports—including soccer, baseball and running track and I played football at West Point—but football seemed to me to be the ultimate team game. It’s a shame that today many kids are glued to their smartphones and don’t get out much.
Q. How are the military and football alike?
A. The stakes are higher in the military, since life and death are on the line. But both call for discipline, teamwork and sacrifice.
Q. When did you decide you wanted to make a career out of football?
A. After I got out of the Army, in the summer of 1992, I missed the camaraderie I had as a platoon leader. Coaching seemed to be a natural substitute. In the summer of 1993, I got a job as a graduate assistant at Humboldt State University in California.
Q. Who influenced you as a coach? Did you have a mentor?
A. My dad was my No. 1 influence. He exemplified hard work and sacrifice, and always triumphed. My professional mentor was Tom Coughlin, when we were with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and then the Giants.
Q. How would you describe your coaching style?
A. You can get a sense of players by the look in their eyes, whether they’re “getting it” or not. Also, it’s more than just lecturing to the players, you’ve got to be interactive. Players at all levels can detect bull, so I’m as upfront as possible and respect them. When you’re honest with them they appreciate it, and I try to give them positive reinforcement and build up their confidence.
Q. Does individual training or group coaching deliver the best results?
A. I like to work with small groups, because it keeps the individual players from feeling uptight. As you develop respect and mutual trust, a person will slowly let their guard down, and you’re able to understand them and pick up cues from their body language. I love strategy, but relationships are the most important thing. The idea is to reach each player and connect with them. The X’s and O’s on a chart are great but connecting is most important. And it’s different with each player, like cracking the combination to a safe.
Q. What’s the best advice you have ever received?
A. The best advice I have ever received was when I was a young lieutenant in the Army. It was during a training exercise. I was running around, and it was apparent that I was losing control of my men. An older sergeant major, an NCO [non-commissioned officer], pointed to the troops and told me, “If you’re in control, they’ll be controlled.” He made me realize that if I exude calm, confidence and poise, that rubs off. I try to implement that in my coaching.
Q. You were Eli Manning’s quarterback coach from 2010 to 2011, and again in 2015. Some reports say your coaching did a lot to help Manning get where he is. To what extent are good football players born versus made?
A. Credit goes to each player and their hard work, but a lot is also God-given gifts. It’s a combination of hard work and constant determination to improve. A coach has to be relentless in preparation, and no detail is too small.
Q. What’s the best advice you have ever given?
A. As far as giving advice, I tell players to stay in the moment—don’t let the past affect their current play, and don’t get caught up in things they can’t control. You can acknowledge random thoughts, but don’t let them control you.
Q. After working with people like Manning, how do you relate off the field with mere mortals?
A. We’re all human beings, trying to make it through the day. People like Manning have bad days like all of us.
Q. TV viewership is up for the NFL, but attendance—at an average of 67,100 fans at home games during the 2018 regular season—is reportedly the league’s lowest figure since 2010. What do you think is happening, and should anything be done about it?
A. I believe it’s a balance between fans that want to be part of the energy at the stadium versus the comfort and cost of watching it from home in your man cave. These are two different ways fans can connect with their team, so I don’t know if anything actually needs to be done. It means there are more ways that fans can interact with the team, which in turn feeds off that energy.
Q. Your recent positions have included quarterback coach and offensive coordinator—how difficult is it to change mindsets and switch responsibilities like that? How do you prepare for the changes?
A. As an offensive coordinator you have to view the big picture, orchestrate positions and tie everything together so the offense can do its job. As a position coach, you see how a particular position ties into the team, and you’re more focused on the detailed fundamentals. I went from being a position coach to a coordinator, and then back again. This gave me a better idea of how to help players.
Q. What percentage of a team’s success is player skill as opposed to good coaching? A. It is player driven. As coaches, our job is to put them in a position to maximize their strengths and to minimize their weaknesses. We also motivate them through the week and during the game. But when you have players with physical skill, and the ability to learn and the ability to work with their teammates, you’ve got a winning combination.
Q. If you hadn’t become a pro football coach, what else would you have done?
A. I’d probably be a teacher at a junior or senior high school. In some ways, coaching is similar to teaching, since you’re reaching students with the goal of ensuring they can understand things.
Q. How would you describe your approach to a game—aggressive or subtle?
A. It’s best to be flexible—you don’t want to be pigeonholed as aggressive or conservative. Instead, tailor your strategy to fit your players. Base it on their abilities and capabilities. I was advised to be unpredictable, and to avoid running the same play or player in similar situations. To stay flexible.
Q. What drill do you like running the most?
A. The two-minute drill is my favorite—when the scenario is laid out, the guy’s tired, and you can see their instinct, capability and training.
Q. How do you generate a sense of team spirit among your players?
A. That’s the million-dollar question. Successful teams have that great culture. It starts with coaches that show respect, appreciation and trust. They focus on things that bring players together, not what keeps them apart. All the players don’t have to be the best of buddies, but they must focus on a common goal. West Point helped me with that.
Q. What famous general from history would make a great football coach?
A. General George S. Patton. There’s a statue of him at West Point, and one of his quotes basically noted that it’s better to execute a good plan now, as opposed to a perfect plan executed next week. It’s about taking action— and being decisive. Patton was a brilliant strategist and a hard charger.
Q. Are you still living in Totowa?
A. Yes, I love New Jersey. I was born in California but I’m a Jersey boy now.
Q. What are your career plans going forward? A. I’m still studying films of coaches, and I’ve started a training business called Coach Sullivan LLC in order to conduct coaching clinics and consultations with other coaches at all levels, as well as to provide instruction to teenage players via camps. Additionally, individual lessons—with both classroom work and field training—are available to quarterbacks. I look forward to the season and would like to get back into the game at either the college or the professional level.